Hate groups have tripled in Utah, Southern Poverty Law Center says, and their presence has been felt in Salt Lake City

A new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center shows hate groups in Utah tripled in 2018 after numbers remained stagnant for three years in a row.

The rise from three hate groups to nine isn’t as much representative of cultural attitudes in Utah as it is the reach of these organizations, said Heidi Beirich, director of the center’s Intelligence Project.

In particular, she pointed to the spread of white nationalist groups Identity Evropa and Patriot Front. Proud Boys, with two Utah chapters and which the center classifies as a general hate group, has also been growing, she said.

These groups are “basically targeting every state in the nation," Beirich said. “So I think what you’re seeing is Utah’s just gotten swooped up in that move."

Before the release of 2018 hate group data, Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes sued the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy group that documents extremism, for defamation for classifying the fraternity as a hate group.

Others on the Utah list include the white nationalist group The Right Stuff and the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer, along with three organizations designated as general hate groups: American Guard and the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and Kingston Group.

Beirich noted a 50 percent jump in white nationalist groups nationwide in 2018, growing from 100 to 148, and contributing to the center recording an all-time high of hate groups. Black nationalist hate groups also increased from 233 in 2017 to 264.

This past year, the law center tallied 1,020 hate groups, up 7 percent from 2017, and higher than the previous record of 1,018 in 2011. The center attributed the earlier spike to “rage against the first black president.”

The law center said that this new record — part of a four-year upward trend since a low point in 2014 — is a response to fear and frustration inspired by President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and policies, in addition to U.S. census projections that white people will no longer be the majority demographic in the U.S. by 2044.

While Beirich said you can’t correlate recent suspected hate crimes in Utah — such as the attack on a Latino boy and his father in Salt Lake City — to the increase in hate groups, data show instances of each rising at the same time.

According to FBI data, hate crimes grew by 17 percent in 2017, from 6,121 to 7,175.

The FBI also reported increases in hate crimes in Utah, but the state disputes that data, saying many of those reports were submitted in error. Based on state Department of Public Safety numbers, reported hate crimes have decreased by 38 percent.

However, neither of those numbers show the full scope of hate crimes in Utah because many are never reported, the FBI has said.

In recent months, Identity Evropa and Patriot Front’s presence has been felt in Utah, particularly on college campuses, where Beirich said the organizations leave flyers and stickers to rile up students and gain media attention.

In the most recent incident, Patriot Front left flyers and stickers at Salt Lake Community College’s Taylorsville Redwood campus. College spokesman Joy Tlou said those materials were reported to the school Tuesday. He couldn’t confirm a Reddit post purporting to show a Patriot Front flyer at the community college’s South City campus, but the group tweeted about placing posters at the school’s Salt Lake City campus Feb. 17.

Tlou said the materials at the Taylorsville campus were taken down because they didn’t meet the school’s guidelines for posting. They weren’t approved beforehand and weren’t stuck to surfaces using approved adhesives.

Identity Evropa and Patriot Front have also posted materials on the University of Utah’s campus. A group of about 11 Identity Evropa members carried an “End immigration!” banner to the block U, a concrete letter on the hill above the school Feb. 9.

The demonstration was in apparent retaliation for the U. speaking out against the group leaving recruitment stickers on campus. U. President Ruth Watkins had denounced the group, saying, “These cowardly, faceless and nonuniversity sanctioned tactics are designed to disrupt and frighten individuals and communities, and to garner attention for an insidious ideology that has no place on our campus or in our community.”

By the time police got up to the block U, the members and the banner were gone.

In January, Patriot Front members hung a banner from the U.'s Eccles Legacy Bridge in coordination with members in Minnesota, New York, Illinois, Michigan, Texas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Maryland, California, Vermont and Massachusetts. The group also claims to have left materials at Westminster College in east Salt Lake City and in Murray.

U. spokesman Chris Nelson said in the decades he’s been at the school, there has been a steady stream of white nationalist and supremacist material left on campus every couple of months. He said since the demonstration at the block U, racist materials have been reported to campus officials about once a week.

Nelson said the U. has responded to the apparent recruitment tactics by talking about equity, diversity and free speech.

“Our attempt is to try to inoculate our campus by talking about these issues [and] making sure our students of color understand that this is against the university’s values," he said, “and to make sure that all of our students understand both the importance of free speech but also why we want a diverse campus.”

Identity Evropa representatives didn’t return The Salt Lake Tribune’s request for comment. The Tribune was unable to contact Patriot Front.

Black Lives Matter Utah founder Lex Scott said the Proud Boys have counterprotested at a minimum of one demonstration she’s hosted. During an October event, she said, Proud Boys outnumbered Black Lives Matter members and “were super-duper obnoxious," yelling “blue lives matter" and saying “thugs deserve to die.”

Utah Against Police Brutality member Dave Newlin, who is a former Tribune employee, said members have taken precautions at their demonstrations after hearing the Proud Boys were planning to attend.

Members of Utah’s Proud Boys chapters declined to comment because of the pending lawsuit against the Southern Poverty Law Center. Joshua Hall, a Proud Boys elder (or leader) based in New Orleans, spoke to The Tribune on their behalf.

Hall said the organization isn’t a hate group and has members of every sexual orientation, race and religion in its fraternity. He said the law center has spread “blatant lies” against the fraternity, causing members to lose jobs and be attacked for their affiliation.

“We are not hateful," he said. "We are a fraternity of brothers who like to get together and drink and shoot the bull.”

A tag line on the group’s website says to join, one must “be a man and you must love the West.”

Hall said Proud Boys members typically don’t show up at protests unless there’s a reason for them to be there and that they don’t incite violence.

“We’re more interested in our brotherhood,” he said.

The law center has called the lawsuit meritless.

"Gavin McInnes [of Proud Boys] has a history of making inflammatory statements about Muslims, women and the transgender community. The fact that he’s upset with SPLC tells us that we’re doing our job exposing hate and extremism,” law center President Richard Cohen said in a statement.

The Salt Lake Tribune is partnering with ProPublica and newsrooms across the country to better understand the prevalence and nature of hate crimes, bias and prejudice. You can share your insights with us at sltrib.com/documentinghate, and we may contact you for future stories.